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Archive for July, 2012

Swept up in Olympic Fever, I here offer what the Olympics might be like if fantasy creatures were real.

Marksmanship would have two categories. Dragons and other fire-breathers would compete in the Heavy Weapons category, while magi with magic wands would make up the Light Weapons category.

Wizards and witches also would compete in transforming objects or themselves. Transforming other beings is not allowed.

Aerobatic events would include precision flying by dragon formations. Giant eagles would dominate aerial speed racing. Magic carpets and flying brooms would have their own category.

Gymnastics: Gnomes and fairies are heavy favorites, although flyers must somehow contain their wings to avoid having an unfair advantage.

Aquatics: Sea serpents would compete in swimming races and also have their own water polo team. Naiads and water hags would be heavily favored in swimming and diving events.

Equestrian events would be dominated by centaurs and would include physical combat.

Archery: Although humans try hard, elves own the field. It’s only a question whether dark, light or woodland elves take the medals.

Weight lifting is the pride of dwarves. However, they refuse to take part in boxing because nobody bleeds.

So tell me, friends, what fantasy Olympic events would you like to see?

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Q: What is a dragon’s favorite wildflower?

A: Fireweed.

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Pete’s Dragon (1977) is a movie that crystallized a lot of my feelings about what dragons should be — or not be, in this case. It was an early experiment in combining live action with animation, similar to the better known Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Nowadays, of course, computer animation is so advanced that such hybrids are no longer necessary.

This is a Walt Disney movie, but you can clearly see it’s from their declining period in the 1970s and ’80s. The characters are all caricatured, from the too-cute little boy to the town drunk who nobody believes saw a dragon, to the villains who can’t stop falling in the mud. The script falls prey to “stupid adult syndrome,” where the adults are written dumb so the child protagonist can be the smart one, and there are plot holes big enough to fly a dragon through.

I think what bothered me most, though, was the dragon. Elliot seemed to be modeled after a stuffed toy: very round in the middle with tiny wings. His voice was goofy, and his main power was invisibility. Although he was supposed to protect the little boy, Pete, his childlike reactions more often got the boy in trouble.

Even as a teenager, I knew this movie demeaned all dragons. Very young kids might like it, I suppose.  If you see this on Netflix, get on your dragon and fly the other way.

 

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I usually blog on Thursdays, but I missed it yesterday. First, because I was working hard on my current novel, The Grimhold Wolf. Second, because I’ve been in the recording phase for my new podcast.

Thanks in part to listener feedback, the podcast I chose to do first is called The Dragon King, and it collects a series of short stories I wrote in the style of the Brothers Grimm. It’s a short series, just 6 episodes. Hardly anything compared by my previous podcast of 16 episodes.

Because the podcast will present a finite amount of verbiage, I’ve opted to record the episodes one after the other. I’ll need another couple of weeks to edit the goofs, mix in music, etc. My plan is to start the series in early August.

Watch this space for more information on The Dragon King.

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Continuing on the thread of dragon movies, I come to Dragonheart, a 1996 adventure featuring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery. Quaid’s character, Bowen, is a knight obsessed with killing dragons, yet jaded on the concept of chivalry. Draco, Connery’s dragon, teams up with Bowen to scam desperate villages by staging fake dragon slayings.

It’s a complicated plot, as Bowen is called upon to join a rebel band fighting a tyrant, and refuses. Said tyrant was once Bowen’s student, but abandoned his honor and destroyed Bowen’s faith in chivalry. Said tyrant also was gifted with a piece of a dragon’s heart — Draco’s own — and so cannot easily be killed. There’s a noble queen and a beautiful girl pleading with both of them to save her people.

The dragon is a great creation, with Connery’s wry voice and a wrinkled, shabby look that was well matched to Quaid’s way-worn gear. The setting, too, is a grubby never-land somewhere between Dark Ages and Medieval. Most of the dragon was CGI, but there were a few large puppets/props for close interaction between Draco and the human characters.

The thing that sticks in my mind, years after, is the sardonic fun. Perhaps there are a few cheesy bits, but not enough to bring the story to a halt. If I recall, the rating was PG-13, making it suitable for most kids.

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It’s been a while since I mentioned a dragon movie, so I thought it fitting to cast my mind back to one of the archetypal dragon movies, Dragonslayer.  You kids these days are lucky to have so many great SF and fantasy movies on the big screen — not to mention anime! We had nothing of the sort in 1981, when Dragonslayer was released. Star Wars, in 1977, had brought a lot of interest in SF adventures, but fantasy was considered too odd and risky.

Actually, in some ways, Dragonslayer was odd and risky. It was a Disney production, but the Disney studio had largely stopped making its animated children’s fantasies. They were searching for a new niche. The special effects featured prominently in Star Wars and Jaws (also a 1977 film) were flowering rapidly, so it actually was possible to make large robots and set pieces to convincingly portray a giant, winged reptile.

Make no mistake, the dragon Vermithrax is the true star. She’s everything a dragon ought to be: fierce, fire-breathing, ruthless. Vermithrax is menacing even in her sleep. The film makers used a variety of techniques to create their monster, including puppets, models, stop-motion, and several large segments of robot dragon, which individually measured 15 to 20 feet. There also was a clutch of baby dragons, which intentionally were about the ugliest little things you ever saw.

The plot is a fairly standard adventure. Vermithrax is ravaging the countryside, bought off by a lottery to choose young women for sacrifice. A half-trained wizard answers the call for help, together with a girl who’s disguised as a man to avoid the lottery, and they’re both hindered by a wicked knight whose reason for wanting the dragon to stay around is never really clear.

There are some nice riffs on the Medieval legend of St. George, with the lottery being rigged to protect the princess of the land. Those who aren’t so fond of religion will enjoy a sequence where a priest attempts to defeat Vermithrax through faith alone. Also look for some fun bits with an old wizard who didn’t bother to explain his grand plan to his apprentice.

Movies were rated differently in 1981 than now, but consider this a PG-13 film. If you get the chance to see if on Netflex or other media, go for it!

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It’s been a few months since the conclusion of my podcast novel, Masters of Air & Fire. I had fun doing the first one, and I’m contemplating recording another with my free time on summer break. Masters of Air & Fire was a middle grade novel, so I’m thinking this time the grown-ups deserve a turn.

What I’d like to know from you, my followers…

Followers! That makes me feel so dictatorial. But as I was saying…

Let me know what material appeals to you most. 1) classic swords and sorcery novelette, 2) dark urban fantasy novelette, or 3) short stories in the style of the Brothers Grimm. None of these will equal the 16 episodes of Masters of Air & Fire, but perhaps that’s best for time-pinched adults such as ourselves.

So, followers, will it be Door #1, Door #2, or what’s behind the curtain? I look forward to your feedback.

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We’ve just passed July 4th, Independence Day here in America, and it’s turned my mind to a fiery topic: fireworks.

That’s the first gift from China, in case you were wondering. It was Chinese scientists who first discovered how to formulate gunpowder. According to the story, a Chinese chef suffered a kitchen accident that produced a fire with colorful flames. He tried to burn his concoction inside a bamboo tube, and it exploded. Fireworks!

No date is given for this legend, but the earliest written record describing something like gunpowder dates to 142 AD, during the Han Dynasty. By around 300 AD, during the Chin Dynasty, there were written recipes with exact proportions. There are records of public fireworks displays during the T’ang Dynasty, around 700 AD.

Another legend about fireworks says there was a monk, Li Tian, who lived in Liu Yang, Hunan Province. Every year, Liu Yang suffered droughts and floods. Li Tian discovered that the ghost of an evil dragon was haunting the area and causing the bad weather. Li Tian filled a bamboo tube with gunpowder and ignited it. The resulting explosion drove the ghost away.

Firecrackers became a part of many Chinese festivals, as they were believed to scare off evil spirits of all kinds. Li Tian is regarded as a sort of patron saint of fireworks, and Liu Yang is a center of the fireworks industry even in modern times.

Here in the West, we don’t believe in evil spirits, but we do love a good show. Fireworks are a symbol of the ultimate celebration. If gunpowder also developed into a weapon of war with global consequence, it doesn’t erase the dazzling impact of a fireworks display.

Now, you may ask, what’s the other gift from China? Dragon legends, of course! They might not be as tangible, but they are equally enduring — and, one could argue, a lot better for the world than gunpowder.

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I’ve been mulling whether to post comments on Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper, first in a new trilogy. My feelings are mixed, and I prefer to keep things positive. This blog is about dragons, however, and ultimately it’s the dragons who won out.

Hobb has put together an interesting life cycle for her dragons, who hatch on land but travel down a river and live for a time as sea serpents. When mature, they travel back up the river and build coccoons, in which they metamorphose and ultimately emerge as dragons. One of the most fascinating aspects is that everything in the dragon’s being contains both memory and great magical power. The dragons eat their coccoons and their dead, not out of greed but to preserve those memories and reserve the power to dragonkind.

The main dragon character here begins as the sea serpent Sisarqua and hatches as the dragon Sintara, called Skymaw by the humans she deems unworthy to know her true name. Alas, the sea serpents were held long at sea by forces of nature and war. They are old and weak when they make their migration. Many die when their imperfect coccoons fail to protect them, and those who do live are stunted. Even Sintara, who is among the strongest, has misformed wings that will never allow her to fly.

Yet, having absorbed the memories within her coccoon (and the bodies of the unfortunates who did not survive metamorphosis) Sintara has a vivid image of the magnificent winged creature she was meant to be. She also inherited the arrogance of those born to rule. The clash between ideal and reality gives this character great pathos. I cheered for Sintara, even when her jaws dripped with blood, and I have great hopes for maturity to temper her vanity.

One of the key questions in this series is power, both personal/relationship power and political power. The humans have their power struggles, the dragons have theirs, and between the two kinds is a separate political struggle for dominance. In ancient times, the mighty dragons were in command. They viewed humans as born to serve. Some humans do willingly serve, and even worship, dragons. Yet because these dragons are not as mighty as their ancestors, some humans want to treat them as livestock and harvest their body parts for magical or financial gain.

How these power struggles work out looks to be the heart of the series, and it could be great reading. Except… The human characters frustrated me greatly. It took them forever to say things that seemed pretty obvious, and the plot held no surprises. Interesting as the ideas are, I’ll have to decide whether I have the patience to continue reading Hobb’s series.

Adult readers may enjoy Dragon Keeper, but I do not recommend it for kids. The sentences are too long, the plot moves too slowly, and there is  significant (though not explicit) reference to a gay love affair that some parents may not approve.

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